Southern Baptists have generally believed that the ultimate objective of the current ecumenical thrust is organic union. We have assumed that denominational distinctives would be dissolved and the autonomy of local churches swallowed up in the evolving monolithic hierarchical structure. And we have quite frankly declared little interest in such a movement.

Deep convictions rooted in our heritage have led us to this position. We believe that these convictions are relevant to issues facing Christianity in this decisive day.

Why have Southern Baptists not been identified with the ecumenical movement?

A major reason is our ecclesiology. The Southern Baptist Convention is a federation of independent democracies, local churches that recognize no ecclesiastical authority superior to themselves. This structure creates a mechanical problem with regard to the NCC and the WCC. These ecumenical councils are composed of denominations and do not accept affiliation by local churches. But no centralized body can deliver the 33,000 local Southern Baptist churches as a unit into any such ecumenical affiliation or corporate unity.

In my opinion, however, not many individual churches would join the NCC if this mechanical barrier were removed. For this ecclesiology is a basic tenet of our Baptist heritage. We believe that the local church is the highest tribunal of Christendom. It is its own final authority, subject only to the will of Christ, its head, as expressed by democratic action of its members.

Baptists have an innate fear of the centralization of ecclesiastical power even within our own ranks. We draw back from any entanglement that threatens to compromise the authority and autonomy of the local congregation. Baptists cannot conceive of a great “super church” or a hierarchical structure above the local church, whether it be a Baptist hierarchy or an ecumenical hierarchy. We have no such organic union among ourselves; hardly would we seek it with others of a different doctrinal persuasion!

A second reason is that Southern Baptists generally are strong denominationalists. We do not accept the ecumenical premise that denominationalism is the scandal of Christianity, wasteful, selfish, or sinful. The variety of churches produced by the Protestant Reformation has brought great vitality and strength to Christianity. Division has multiplied the Christian witness. Struggle, tension, and doctrinal debate have purified truth and have been beneficial rather than harmful. To abolish denominationalism would be to reverse the Reformation and turn the clock back to a medieval Catholicism.

Article continues below

Neither do we accept the ecumenical premise that the “consolidation” of all Christians into “one Church” would solve all the problems of Christendom, bringing vitality and spiritual renewal. Historically, two plus two have more often equaled three instead of five when applied to church unification.

The third barrier is theological. The present ecumenical movement tends to dismiss theological problems as “insignificant” or as readily reconciled by “honest dialogue.” Yet the basic gap remains between the evangelicals and the extreme sacerdotalists. Is the Bible or the Church the seat of authority for faith and practice? Is salvation through personal faith in Christ or through the Church? Is the divine authority on earth the voice of the Church or the Holy Spirit speaking to the individual believer? With the Anglican and Eastern churches dominating the World Council, and with the Vatican now reaching out a hand to lead back the “separated brethren,” doctrinal differences are even more pronounced.

Doctrinal indifference is not the solution to doctrinal differences! Our Baptist dilemma is that if we want unity we must scrap our doctrinal convictions, and if we uphold our convictions we cannot have unity. In every consideration of the ecumenical movement we inevitably come back to this hopeless impasse. We have remained a separate section of the Christian movement because we feel that others have departed from the truth of the New Testament. We believe that only by coming closer to the New Testament as the basis for faith and practice shall we all come closer to each other.

Methods Of The Movement

Southern Baptists are also concerned about the ecumenical methodology.

There is the comity agreement of the NCC carving up geography and restricting denominations to assigned areas. Do such “man-made” limitations thwart the leading of the Holy Spirit or frustrate the evangelistic and missionary zeal of individuals and churches?

Is evangelism the changing of the social structure by a powerful ecumenical church bringing pressure upon the state and upon legislators, or is evangelism personal as Christ redeems the individual and redeemed men redeem society?

Would a “united front” really strengthen Christianity? Does Christianity advance by a great organization filtering down power from the top or by spiritual vitality and faith at the believer level?

Then there are the “official pronouncements” of the intelligentsia of the ecumenical movement, which appear to some as sheer clericalism in modern dress. From the security of the ecumenical establishment the clergy tells the people at the grass roots what to think, what to do, and what position to take on various political and social issues. Baptists believe that men must be brought to Christian conviction by persuasion and by an appeal to the spirit-led conscience rather than by authoritative clerical pronouncements.

Article continues below

On the other hand, in my opinion the Southern Baptist attitude toward the ecumenical movement is not above criticism.

Our genuine doctrinal stance has sometimes degenerated into one of spiritual pride and provincialism.

We have been too negative in our aloofness.

Too often we have been more concerned about gains for ourselves than about the contributions we can make to the total Christian witness.

Unquestionably our size and success have influenced us to say, “We do not need ecumenical ties. We will go it alone.”

We have often been unduly driven by our fears.

We have allowed ecumenicity to become a “bad” word and failed to recognize that there are alternatives to organic union.

Finally, economic, political, and social factors have influenced our considerations far more than we would like to admit.

Is our posture changing? With regard to organic union, or joining the NCC? No, as far as I can discern. In our attitude toward Christians in other denominations? Yes!

In the past, I believe that Southern Baptists, because of our organic isolation from the NCC, have been grossly and unfairly judged as “non-cooperative isolationists.” It should be remembered that Southern Baptists have been on the forefront in cooperative Christian enterprises that did not compromise our convictions. We have long walked and worked in fellowship with other Christians in such national organizations and projects as POAU, the International Lesson Committee, the Foreign Missions Conference, the American Bible Society, World Relief, and Bible revisions, as well as in such local things as evangelistic crusades and campaigns against liquor and vice.

I look for this same spirit of cooperation to continue. I believe that denominational isolationism is fast disappearing, not only among Southern Baptists but everywhere. There is an ever-growing desire for more communication and understanding among all Christians, for more creative cooperation rather than hostile competition. There is scarcely a denominational theology any more. Seminary students are reading the same books and struggling with the same theological problems. Young ministers are more oriented toward world problems and less concerned about divisive doctrines.

Article continues below
The Fast-Running Tide

I feel that Southern Baptists cannot ignore a fast-running ecumenical tide. The glamorous appeal of “one Church” is making an impact upon the world, and this movement must be reckoned with. On the other hand, neither can the ecumenists ignore as provincial or irrelevant the position of Southern Baptists. As the nation’s largest evangelical denomination with 10.3 million members and 33,000 churches, Southern Baptists stand as a formidable obstacle to any successful expression of ecumenicity.

In my opinion, the ecumenical movement should abandon its drive for organic union, forsake its policy of erasing denominational differences, and develop more areas of cooperation at the local level. Otherwise, I predict that Southern Baptists will remain on the sideline in a tragic isolationism. But the alternative of a shallow and impotent ecumenical inclusiveness would be an even greater tragedy, perpetrating a colossal deceit upon the world in the name of “The Christian Church.”

In my opinion, we must seek alternatives to organic union—a new brand and a new expression of ecumenicity—in which there is denominational cooperation without the loss of autonomy and distinctiveness and without the surrender of convictions.

Southern Baptists have much to contribute to world Christianity from our distinctive doctrines, our leadership, our numbers, our wealth. Southern Baptists face a moral and spiritual responsibility continually to rethink our attitude toward and re-examine our relations with other Christians so as to find acceptable channels through which to work on national and international levels. In this our goal must be to emphasize the basic spiritual unity of all believers and to give a united expression to the mind of Christ in a world where Christian ideals are being challenged as never before.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.